If you are a transhumanist, brain-hacker or college student, you might have heard of nootropics. Nootropics, or “smart drugs,” are compounds thought to have brain-boosting properties, such as memory enhancement, heightened cognition, or increased focus.
But British transhumanists are fretting that a new UK drug law, set to come into force in April, will outlaw these drugs, many of which are currently legal to sell and possess.
The Psychoactive Substances Act was passed into law at the end of January. Conceived as a tool to do away with so-called “legal highs”—unregulated, ever-changing synthetic compounds that mimic the effects (and sometimes the side effects) of illegal drugs—the law prohibits the production, supply, import, export and in some cases possession of any psychoactive substance, with penalties of up to seven years in prison. It defines illegal psychoactive substances as all those that “by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, [affect] the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.” Most nootropics, which are often marketed as brain stimulants, would automatically be included in the ban.
"Lots of transhumanists use a lot of nootropics and they’re obviously worried"
In a recent statement, the techno-enthusiast Transhumanist Party UK appealed to the government to exempt nootropics from the impending ban.
“Citizens, academics, shift-workers, entrepreneurs and students employ nootropic substances responsibly to aid cognition and modulate mood during times of stress or when peak productivity is required,” the statement reads. “By denying citizens easy and legal access to what could be a beneficial intervention, the government will enforce a reduction in ‘quality of life.’”
Party spokesperson Dirk Bruere told me in a phone call that the party was also launching an online petition. “Lots of transhumanists use a lot of nootropics and they’re obviously worried,” he said. “Whoever passed this law is scientifically illiterate.”
Another Transhumanist Party representative, Cathy Wang, told me that she feared the new regulation would hamper Britain’s potential. “Taking smart drugs off the market will impact this country’s creativity,” she said.
Nootropics have always existed in a sort of grey area in Britain. As Bruere told me, “most of them are actually prescription medicines for conditions such as narcolepsy, or Alzheimer’s, that increase some mental faculties in healthy users.”
There are questions around the risks—let alone the efficacy—of taking these drugs recreationally, with some experts warning that while they could help increase short-term focus, they might impair brain functionality in the long term. The only smart drug that, following a 2015 study, was deemed both safe and effective—alertness-enhancer modafinil—is still prescription-only and has been criticised by some commentators as a form of brain doping.
Modafinil pills. Image: Jason Tester Guerilla Futures/Flickr
As these medicines are prescription-only, and lack of enhanced intelligence is not considered a medical condition, nootropics fans cannot generally get them on prescription.
That’s why until now people who want to legally get their hands on nootropics have often turned to slightly tweaked versions of those medicines, imported from abroad (generally Russia and Eastern Europe) and marketed on British websites, sometimes with “not for human consumption” disclaimers. These psychoactive products aren’t approved drugs, but under the existing laws, which regulate drugs substance by substance, they aren’t explicitly prohibited either. Their unregulated status made it possible to produce and trade them lawfully.
But the new Act takes a more blanket approach. Rather than prohibiting certain compounds, it will forbid them unless they are explicitly exempted: currently, exempted substances include food, approved medicines, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
An amendment put forward by Chesham and Amersham MP Cheryl Gillan tried to add nootropics to the exemption list, but it was not put to vote; a Home Office spokesperson told me there is no further plan to exempt them as of now. Gillan’s assistant said that “she suggested the change after a constituent who sells nootropics got in touch with her. She is not herself a nootropics user.”
British nootropics merchants like Gillian’s constituent are in disarray. Duncan Shen, who used to take nootropics as a student and now runs e-commerce website nootropics.co.uk, told me on Skype that he’d have to shut the business down, as he wouldn’t be able to sell 90 percent of his stock (the remaining ten percent is comprised of caffeine-based supplements and so won’t be affected by the new law).
"A lot of people in the UK will try to buy nootropics, so the only way is going to be using darknet markets"
He’s thinking of moving his venture to the US or to a less-restrictive EU country. He’s also looking for loopholes to exploit—a “plan B” could be selling DIY kits. “We could sell two chemicals that have no psychoactive effect, until you mix them together,” Shen suggested. It’s not clear if or how that would be permissible.
What is clear is that nootropics users aren’t going to stop because of the ban. According to Shen, right now his website is experiencing a spike in sales, due to people stocking up before the law comes into force.
And April might not be the end of the UK trade. “You’re going to have people like us sitting on kilos of nootropics,” Shen said. “And a lot of people in the UK will try to buy nootropics, so the only way is going to be using darknet markets. ”
“At the moment people selling nootropics are lawful companies; after the [new law comes into force] it’ll be shady people.”
Others agree that we won’t see much of a shift in use of nootropics. Pharmacologist and drug researcher David Nutt, who served on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs from 2008 to 2009 and is an advocate for drug law reform, thinks that the new Act’s blanket ban could be just too much to work.
“It’s hard to know how it’ll ever be enforced: the definition of ‘psychoactive’ is too vague and there’s no way they’re going to know for sure if a substance they find is psychoactive,” he told me on the phone. “This is just about abating sales and closing head shops. It won’t really abate consumption.”
In the end, transhumanists might have to wait until public perception around smart drugs changes. Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute researcher Anders Sandberg told me there is a rift between those who think that human brainpower and in general the human body are worth upgrading with whatever means available, and those who think they are not.
“The way to get [nootropics] legal is to convince medical authorities that human enhancement is a valid medical activity: a long-term goal,” Sandberg wrote in an email. “In the meantime they will always fall under the misuse of drugs act.”